September 17th, 2012 by Paul Erickson
Today, poetry occupies one of the smallest possible corners of the publishing landscape. The market for books of poetry by contemporary poets is miniscule, and—apart from occasionally having one of the poems in, say, the New Yorker catch one’s eye—many readers can go months (if not years) without seeing a contemporary poem in print. This was emphatically not the case in early America. In an age when novels were still morally suspect, poetry was the highest form of literary art—but also the lowest, as cheap ballads and broadsides featuring humorous doggerel were readily available from printers around the colonies. Poetry was used to teach history, to raise money for charity, to convert unbelievers to Christianity, to entertain, cajole, and comfort.
On September 29, AAS will examine the place of poetry in the world of early American print culture in a symposium titled “Poetry & Print in Early America.” This symposium, sponsored by the Bibliographical Society of America, is being held to mark the publication of A Bibliographical Description of Books and Pamphlets of American Verse Printed from 1610 Through 1820. This bibliography—compiled by Roger Stoddard, and edited by David Whitesell—is a landmark of scholarship on early American printing, and is destined to become the standard bibliographic work in the field for decades to come.
The American Antiquarian Society holds many of the titles examined in this new bibliography, and we are delighted to observe its publication with a rich set of conversations about poetry in early America by bibliographers, scholars, and book dealers and collectors. Ranging from examinations of early African-American hymnbooks to the productions of a “mad poet” in early Philadelphia, the presentations at the symposium will be of interest to those who study poetry, those who write poetry, and those who love poetry. A full program for the symposium and registration details are available on the AAS website.
On the evening of Friday, September 28, the Society will host the Twenty-ninth Annual James Russell Wiggins Lecture in the Program in the History of the Book in American Culture. This year’s Wiggins Lecture, in keeping with the theme of the following day’s program, is titled “In Search of Phillis Wheatley,” and will be delivered by Vincent Carretta, professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. Phillis Wheatley—an enslaved African-American woman who was brought from West Africa to Boston as a young girl—won fame with the 1773 publication of a collection of her poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. This was the first book authored by an African-American woman to be published, and made Wheatley a figure of signal importance in American letters. Professor Carretta’s lecture will draw on his book, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (University of Georgia Press, 2011), which is the first full-length biography of Wheatley. The Wiggins Lecture is free and open to the public; further details are available here.